Rev. Bill Barnard, left, Oretha Lawson, and Dan Rutt gather under the billboard. Ms. Lawson, a longtime church member, supports the message. Mr. Rutt is a member of the church’s lead team.
A small Toledo church is taking a big step toward sparking public debate with a billboard campaign that proclaims, “Being Gay is a Gift from God.”
“We’re expecting a vigorous conversation in this community in many forms,” said Dan Rutt, a member of Central United Methodist’s lead team.
The digital billboard at Monroe Street and Central Avenue, in Toledo’s Colony area, began displaying the slogan early Monday, and Central’s congregation — which averages “a couple dozen people” on Sunday mornings, Mr. Rutt said — has made a one-month commitment at a cost of $1,500. The billboard campaign will continue as long as funds are available, he said.
The Rev. Bill Barnard, Central’s part-time pastor, said the billboard message will be linked to a four-week sermon series, and the overall campaign goal is “to make a leap beyond tolerance.”
“Members of the congregation have experienced places and times where being lesbian or gay was tolerated — kind of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, I know God forgives you,’” Barnard said. “We’re saying, ‘This is the way God created you. There’s nothing to forgive.’ “
Both Mr. Rutt and Mr. Barnard, who described themselves as “straight allies” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, pointed out that Central has had a long history of supporting gay rights. The church joined the denomination’s Reconciling Ministries Network, a national grass-roots organization of congregations supportive of LGBT rights, in 1984.
Central’s members realize their campaign takes a provocative stance on a hot-button issue in the church.
As with most mainline Protestant bodies, the United Methodist Church has been hotly debating whether to ordain gay clergy or to allow blessings of same-sex unions. The denomination’s Book of Discipline, or Constitution, now forbids the ordination of practicing, self-avowed homosexuals, and its clergy are barred from blessing same-sex unions.
The Rev. Marla Brown, district superintendent for the Toledo area, said Monday that “the diversity of our perspectives and the ability to express opinions in an open, caring discussion is a strength of our United Methodist denomination. However, it is important to remember that no one church speaks for the entirety of the United Methodist Church.”
She said the denomination “respects the right of individual churches to publicly express their collective viewpoints, even when there is disagreement among United Methodists on an issue.”
The Rev. Scott Ocke, pastor of Maumee United Methodist Church, is among those who disagree with Central’s billboard message.
“Our denomination says all persons are of sacred worth. It also says the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. So we try to distinguish between what a person is and what they practice,” he said. He said that although gays are welcome at his church, the church has a responsibility to “help them move to a more biblical lifestyle.”
The Rev. Adam Read, assistant pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Ohio, also feels that the billboard sends the wrong message. He said that “the scriptures clearly condemn homosexuality as being a perversion of God’s plan as is stated clearly in Romans 1:26-27.” And, he said, if “God states that homosexuality is wrong, it is impossible for homosexuality to be a gift from God.”
Mr. Rutt said Central’s campaign emerged from discussions about media reports over the last six months about youths who committed suicide because they were gay or were perceived to be gay.
“That really hit hard, it really brings home the damage that anti-gay attitudes are causing,” he said. “Sadly, faith communities are actually lagging in many ways behind secular society in recognizing the rights and equality of gay persons.”
He said the church “is in an in-between place right now” in its views toward homosexuality, and Central hopes to influence the discussion as “a prophetic voice.”
“Many of us have seen a picture of what God wants for the church, and we are all in there,” Mr. Rutt said. “The church is incomplete without LGBT people in it, and we want the church to be complete. We want the body of Christ to be full.”
Central United Methodist was founded in 1897 and was at 701 West Central Ave. from 1913 until May, 2008, when it began renting space at Collingwood Presbyterian Church in the Old West End. The church meets at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays. More information is available at CentralToledo.org.
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